This time last year, Ole Miss baseball players were getting ready for summer vacation. The Rebels had missed the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in a decade and a half thanks largely to an offense that ranked dead last in hitting among SEC teams.
Fast forward 12 months and Ole Miss heads into the tournament as the No. 4 overall seed with the chance to host the first two rounds on its own field, beginning this Friday. The turnaround has been powered by a resurgent offense that jumped from worst to first in SEC hitting and ranks top 15 nationally in homers and slugging percentage.
While the improvement at the dish owes itself in part to veterans like All-SEC second baseman Ryan Olenek, star catcher Nick Fortes and hard-swinging DH Chase Cockrell, the bulk of the offensive firepower has been provided by a quartet of underclassmen sluggers. Youngsters Thomas Dillard, Grae Kessinger, Cole Zabowski and Tyler Keenan give Ole Miss one of the deepest lineups in the country and a legitimate shot at a national championship.
On a Saturday afternoon in late April, Thomas Dillard stepped to the plate at a critical juncture in a crucial rubber match against LSU. With two men on and his team down one run in the bottom of the seventh, the sophomore slugger lifted a full-count pitch with a smooth, fluid swing far too graceful for a guy built like a Volkswagen. By the time it landed over the right field fence, Dillard was the most popular person on campus not named A.J. Brown.
It hasn’t always been so effortless for the big fella. Dillard showed up on campus as one the top 100 high school prospects in the country, a star among a 2016 recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the country. But he and star freshmen classmates Grae Kessinger and Cole Zabowski struggled to catch up to collegiate pitching as freshmen. Dillard hit just .206 and led the team in strikeouts last season; Kessinger’s defense earned him the starting shortstop gig but he was just .175 at the plate; Zabowski hit .239 but couldn’t generate the power numbers to carve out a role in the everyday lineup.
“It was pretty frustrating,” Dillard told The Oxford Eagle. “I tried to stay with a positive mindset, but it just wears on you after a while. It wasn’t so much personally for me but just letting down the team and the fans. I underperformed [last] year and felt like I could’ve done a lot of stuff better.”
So the trio went to work in summer ball, with Dillard and Kessinger playing in the prestigious Cape Cod league, where they retooled their approach at the plate.
“Last year, learned a lot,” Kessinger told the Ole Miss Spirit. “But one thing is be consistent with the aggression in your swing. Be aggressive in your approach and be aggressive with your swings. As long as you’re swinging the bat, good things will happen.”
All three came out swinging in 2018. Good things indeed happened.
Dillard jumped his batting average to .309 and became a run-generating monster in the cleanup spot, posting the third best RBI total in the SEC while clobbering 13 homers. Of the 421 runs the Rebels have posted this season, Dillard has scored or batted in over a quarter of them. He’s also found patience to go along with that aggression: his walk rate is slightly up from a year ago while his strikeout rate has been slashed from 30.5 percent to 17.5 percent.
Dillard owes a lot of that success to Kessinger and Zabowski. Kessinger’s done an excellent job setting the table after winning the leadoff position out of fall camp, climbing his on-base percentage over 100 points since last year while hitting .304 with the second-most doubles on the team. Zabowski’s spent most of the season hitting right behind Dillard in the five-hole, where his dramatically improved power numbers (nine homers, 39 RBI and a .487 slugging percentage) have forced pitchers to throw to Dillard.
Cumulative stats for Dillard, Kessinger and Zabowski
The true danger of this lineup, however, comes in its depth. The Rebels have one of the most balanced 1-9 in the country and freshman Tyler Keenan’s production in the seven-hole plays no small role. Keenan, who arrived on campus as the 13th-best third base prospect in the country, can’t relate to his teammate’s freshman struggles. He opened the season splitting time at third with fellow frosh Tim Elko but didn’t waste much time clinching the full-time starting job. His breakout came at the end of March, when he stroked a three-run shot over the left-field wall to win the series against top-five Arkansas—a win that eventually secured the SEC West title.
Keenan’s been one of the best freshman hitters in the country, batting .314 with a .535 slugging percentage and eight home runs—all while playing solid defense at the hot corner. Most impressively for a newcomer, he’s been at his best against SEC pitching: he’s hitting .326 with six homers in conference play.
“There’s a lot more pressure when you play in the SEC and you play in front of large crowds,” Mike Bianco told the Spirit. “A lot of guys allow that to change the way they play and the way they think about the game. I think Tyler is a great competitor, enjoys the game and enjoys those moments. The guys that are really good figure that out quickly.”
Keenan missed the majority of the SEC Tourney with a wrist injury but has been given the all-clear for this weekend’s Oxford regional*, where the Rebels will have to match up against the country’s most prolific offense in Tennessee Tech. TTU obviously hasn’t faced the same level of pitching as SEC teams, but there’s no arguing the numbers: first nationally in batting average, slugging percentage, home runs and runs per game.
With Kessinger, Dillard, Zabowski and Keenan scattered through the lineup, the Rebels counter with one of the deepest offenses in the country. Every one of Ole Miss’ regular starters has at least three homers and all but one of them are batting over .300. If the quartet of young sluggers can keep producing like they have, this team could do a lot more than bash their way out of a regional—they could keep hitting all the way to Omaha.
*Kessinger, who tweaked a hamstring in Hoover, is listed as questionable for Friday’s regional opener against Saint Louis.